Issue_17  August 2017

When we imagine ourselves gone, we are already on a journey. — Beth Kephart


In late June, Bill and I set out on a nearly 5,000-mile drive from our home in Pennsylvania to New Mexico and, by a southern route, back. We were seeking knowledge beyond the small, happy home that we’ve created. The voices of strangers. The streetscapes, landscapes, musicscapes of fellow Americans.

I’m not the kind of person who can sit for long stretches anywhere at any time, but beside Bill, in that rented car, I did. There is a peace to seeing what has not been seen before. A peace to getting away, finding perspective. I wrote about some of what happened to us on ribboning roads here, in the
Philadelphia Inquirer.

Bill and I spoke of many things while we were gone. How we can be most helpful to all of you, for example. What we can do to add meaning (but not clutter) to your reading and writing lives.

One decision: To turn Juncture Notes into a bi-monthly publication come September. We’ll still be offering our interviews, reviews, prompts, homework, but we’ll do it less often, so that you’ll receive fewer Juncture pings.

Another: To focus our attention on the
November Sea Change workshop, rather than trying to produce a workshop at both the farm and the sea in the fall. If we can’t do everything as perfectly as we like, as completely, we’re going to make the shifts that enable us to do the best that we can always do. We have a truly wonderful group preparing to work with us at the sea—and a handful of openings. 

In addition, we extend an invitation to any of you who might want to join us for a single, glorious day at
Longwood Gardens.

We also invite you to check out our new illustrated memoir workbook, which is already being adopted by classroom teachers, writers, and communities. Bookstores have begun to order it through Baker & Taylor and Ingram. A special shout-out to our own Christine O'Connor, for using the workbook so effectively during a recent teaching session. 

When last we wrote to you I promised a July reflection on character studies in the recent work of Sherman Alexie, Roxanne Gay, and Richard Ford. Indeed, after reviewing the work of the first two for the Chicago Tribune and giving great attention to the third, I wrote that piece. We were ready to go.

But then I received responses to the questions I had sent Tova Mirvis, a well-respected novelist who will soon release her first memoir, The Book of Separation. I had one of those I-can’t-wait moments, a great desire to introduce you to Tova right now, so that she can let you in on the secrets of her story. Do you want to know what it is to be hiding behind a novel when the story within you is true? Do you want the curly skinny on how one essay can open up into a book? Do you want ideas about making your book bigger than yourself?

You’ve got some reading cut out for you.


THE BOOK OF SEPARATION (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Book of Separation is a brave, bold book that takes us straight into the mind of a woman raised to embrace a faith and way of living that does not, ultimately, fit. Its author, Tova Mirvis, is a writer and a seeker, a mother of three loved children, a wife. She has observed the rules of her Orthodox-Jewish faith—covered her hair, slept in separate marital beds when biology dictates, abided distinctions and rituals. Forty, now, she wonders what might happen if she actually chose the framing of her life. If she lived according to the instincts that percolate within.

Or might percolate. If only she was graced the chance to find out.

Leaving a faith, in this case, means leaving a family. It means striking out where few have gone, writing the stories she seeks to write, loving a new man who gives her light, repairing the curls on her own head. It means answering the questions her children have about once forsaken pizzas and Halloweens and being together. It means driving highways to unknown destinations, eating granola bars on holy days, and recalibrating traditions.

“Leaving isn’t just about engaging in a set of once-forbidden actions,” Tova writes. “It’s about changing the family story. Orthodoxy has always been my home, and to leave it is to leave home as well.”

Later: “Love is what you risked losing if you wanted to choose for yourself.”

And: “Orthodoxy was the life he wanted and the truths in which he believed. If you believed in those rules, you had a life built of tradition and ritual, richly populated with family and community. But if you didn’t believe, then those same structures could be a prison. You could stay by carving out private spaces for yourself, but even then, you always had to be aware of the gap between who you were and who you were supposed to be.”

Tova, you told some of this moving story in a February 2014 New York Times Opinionator piece. What were the most interesting challenges you faced as you elongated this essay and other previously published fragments into a single, cohering memoir?

From early on, I envisioned the New York Times essay as the prologue to the memoir, but I needed to put it aside in order to write the book. The essay felt “finished” in my mind and I had to enter the unfinished state of murky experience not yet put into words. To have that essay waiting at the start of the book, well, it felt like having a pristine, orderly person looking over my shoulder while I was in the throes of messiness.

Later, I came back to the essay and tried to put it in prologue position, but it had been absent for so long that I wondered if should cut it altogether. (How ironic -- the essay that inspired me to write the book would no longer have a central role – which happens of course, all the time.)  As I played with it, I realized that it could still be my opening, but not in the same form as the published essay. That essay told a small, complete story, with a beginning, middle and end. In the prologue I needed not a full story but an unanswered question that would forge an entryway into the book. I cut the essay in half, so that the prologue ended not with resolution but a moment of uncertainty.

 The other half of the essay eventually became imbedded inside the book, as a moment to move toward, in the hope of creating a tension that pulls readers inside. I found the right spot for the second half of the essay in a near-final draft, so the essay was both my point of embarkation and my endpoint.

You’ve made important structural choices in your crafting of this book. No straightforward chronology (thank goodness). A well-managed rise of themes and questions. A sure hand when it comes to the story’s inherent suspense. Can you talk about your management of time and event in Separation? What guided the craft decisions that you made?

I wrestled with the structure constantly. For years, my head was filled with arcs and intersecting lines. 

The present tense was one arc: the year of leaving, spanning from one September to the next September, from one Jewish New Year to the next. This arc is told in the present tense, and the fact that it was a specified year helped me create a clear structure and sense of time that grounds the reader in the narrative movement of the book. I made sure the reader knew where we were in that year, looking for markers to keep the reader oriented in time. This felt especially important because the book is a story of change over time and I needed the reader to be aware of that passage of time.

But other parts of the story beyond the year of leaving needed to be told as well and this created a more complicated arc. There was the far past: growing up in the Orthodox world, getting married, having kids, and eventually realizing that I was not going to stay. This backstory, which I did want to lay out chronologically, needed to be spliced into the present story, unfolding with its own smaller arc, its own tension and pacing: an arc within an arc. But the far past also needed to intersect with the present story in a way that was thematically consistent and resonant. And making it more complicated was what I called “the near past.” I couldn’t wait until the end of the book (when the chronology of the far past arrived closer to the present-day arc) to relay to the reader important details about my marriage and my religious feelings. So I needed to work in these more recent past events where they were needed to flesh out the present day story.

I constantly reshuffled the way the past intersects the present. Should I alternate chapters past and present? Have big chunks of past as separate sections? Have minimal backstory because it was too hard to splice it in without interrupting the narrative flow? In our minds, of course we move constantly between past and present – but on the page, it’s harder because we don’t want a reader to get confused, we don’t want to lose forward momentum, or make the narrative feel choppy, or have the reader ask: why am I being told this now? I wanted those detours into the past to feel seamless, but trying to create an illusion of seamlessness is very labor-intensive.

I wrote out the different events I wanted to cover on note cards that I spread across my living room floor, forming the different arcs. I looked for moments of thematic intersection – to spot an opening in the present story where the past could be folded inside. Some came easily and some were hard to find. I felt as though I was working a large puzzle, needing to see the structure in a physical way, on the floor, before I could see it on the page.  (Do NOT walk in the living room! I warned my kids.) 

Eventually, when I found those openings and spliced the past into the present, I felt like I was a tour guide leading a group along uncertain terrain and telling them: We’re taking a detour now, but trust me, I know why we’re going here now and I promise I will get you back on the path soon.

Memoir must finally be bigger than the first-person I. It must teach the readers about the world and the readers themselves. What universal themes were significant to you as you worked on this book? What did you learn about your own self as you wrote and refined the pages?

In my first conception of the memoir, I thought of this as being primarily about leaving Orthodox Judaism – this is a world loaded with particular rules and a code of belonging and a language all its own, and those abundant details were the trees filling my forest. But as I continued to write, I was able to pull the lens back and think thematically and take in more of the surrounding landscape in which my particular story exists.

I came to see that The Book of Separation was about the universal question of what it means to what you have been raised to think, to listen to your own internal compass, and set out without being sure where you are going. Leave-takings of all kinds share many common features – and we all embark on leave-taking of one sort or another. To grow is to always be leaving something behind —we are always in the process of separating, from the past, from images of ourselves, from fixed notions of life. The title The Book of Separation came to me early on, before I knew how much the book would be about the multiple separations we have to navigate in order to live with a more authentic sense of self.

In your beautiful acknowledgments (I love reading acknowledgments), you say, of your HHM editor, Lauren Wein, that she “has the uncanny ability to see what a book has the potential to be.” Can you talk a little about the editorial process for Separation?

Lauren was there at the very beginning of this memoir, though we first talked about it as a novel. I told her I was thinking about the idea of a character who was struggling with late doubt. It was a fictional character, of course, not me. Though I was torn apart by my own doubt, I didn’t yet believe I would ever act on how I felt.

At the time, Lauren was considering buying my third novel, Visible City, and in response to it, she sent me an email about the book that burned through me. She said she wanted to see the bold Tova who was not afraid to make big statements. She said she saw me dipping a toe past the line of safety, that she saw the quiet SOS coming from the pages of this novel and she wanted me to know that she got it.

As I read her note, I had that feeling of being laid bare and fully seen: not just for what I had written, but for what I was still afraid to write. She became the editor of Visible City, where she helped me set free that quiet SOS and bring a greater urgency and bolder spirit to the book. At the same time as we were editing the book, I was leaving my marriage and Orthodox world. 

When I was ready to write about this late doubt that I had told her about, I knew I couldn’t write it as a novel. I needed to claim my own experience, not as fiction but memoir.

From the very first conversation, I knew that the questions I was wrestling with, in life and in the memoir, were ones Lauren understood deeply. She is the kind of editor who holds up a mirror that allows you to see what you have written, but in this editorial fairy tale, it’s a magic kind of mirror that also shows you how your work might appear if only you unleashed your full self. I read her notes again and again, in which she urged me to dig deeper, be bolder, to push myself past my own fear. Even as I was writing about letting go of fear – a theme that is central to the memoir – she helped me realize that my instinct was still to shy away from what scared me. To write a memoir, you have to be willing to say, really say, what you think. Sometimes it’s a painful, daunting process to be urged past your comfort zone, but Lauren enabled me to own my story and become less afraid. I feel like working with her shaped not just my memoir but helped me become myself more fully as well.

Write, in 150 words or less, of a moment of a (real, personally experienced) community built by strangers.

After Gary's death, I ached to be alone with our son and two cats.

Family and friends shared so much: Dying days. Last breath. Crematorium. Scattering of ashes. Grief. Disbelief. Food. Drink. Our home.

I wanted to scream, 'Please leave!'

Finally, they did.

That night, I hauled my laptop onto the bed and searched widow, grief, husband's death.

Up popped Widownet. An ocean of words spilled into 'Newly Widowed' and 'Dumb Things People Say' and 'Unbearable Pain'.

Breathing hurt. I read and read and read. A post by a Scottish policeman about losing his phone in the freezer made me laugh out loud. He called the group 'the club no-one wants to join.'

'Dear God, help me,' I prayed.

You had to register to join: name, cause and date of spouse or partner's death.

In the darkness, I typed, 'My name is Carolyn. My husband, Gary, died last Saturday night.'

— Carolyn Barbaro

It was a time when there were no fences, only hedges separated the back yards. My old neighborhood was the melting pot of transplanted European men and women. There were the DeMarcos, the McGees, the Symanskis. Mr. DeMarco had cut a section out of his hedge so we all could walk through to reach each other's yards. Each yard had a clothesline that was used on a daily basis because all of the women were real housewives. The front porch was the after-dinner meeting place where everyone could talk in any language. Cherry's store was in the middle of the block where meats, candy and ice cream could be bought. The families all attended their respective churches. The Irish church, St. Matthew's, the Italian church, St. Cosmos and Damian and then the smallest of them all, the Polish church, St. Mary's. It became a group of families that converted houses into homes and a neighborhood of which the likes cannot be found again. 

— Diane Orzech

The fluorescent overhead lighting wasn’t flattering to any of us.  We were Black, White, Asian…we were men and women…we were aged 19 to 72 and we were strangers to each other and to our professor.  Gathered for the first of twelve classes in a basement classroom of Lankenau Hospital, we  were nervous. We were wary.  We all had one thing in common and that fact  might have made us smile and greet each other warmly but it did not.  We all had a loved one who suffered from a mental illness.  We all wanted to learn more about  the human brain, about psychology , about reaching out to our sons, daughters, spouses, mothers in any way we could.  Over the next 12 weeks, we would share deep feelings and some dark secrets.  We would cry and yes, at times we would laugh, and we would form a bond over loving people who were so hard to understand.  In 10 months I would bury my son who died of suicide.  But tonight, this first night together, we looked, we listened and above all, we hoped.

— Pamela Quinn

YOUR NEXT ASSIGNMENT: Write, in 150 words or less, of a person in your life, about a decision you made that changed the trajectory of your life. Send your work to this email address by August 5, for consideration in our next issue.


On October 15, we’ll be conducting a single-day workshop at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. Information for that is here. The student limit is 20.

During November 12 through November 17, we will be returning to Cape May, NJ, for a workshop designed for writers with a passion for memoir. The student limit is 9.

Please email us with your interest.


Reflections on writing about the people we love, with lessons from memoirs by Richard Ford, Roxane Gay, Sherman Alexie, and Nina Riggs.

Photography by William Sulit, Juncture partner

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 22 books, including six memoirs and Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, the 2013 winner of a Books for a Better Life Award. A frequent speaker, panelist, and workshop leader, Beth also teaches memoir at the University of Pennsylvania, where she won the 2015/16 Beltran Family Teaching Award. This Is the Story of You, a Jersey shore storm novel, was released by Chronicle Books in 2016.

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